Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

In Conversation: Tina Brown

Days after the election and a month before she’ll retire the print edition of Newsweek, the pioneering editor talks with Michael Kinsley about the future for newsweeklies, American Anglophilia, and personally presiding over the end of the twentieth century.

ShareThis

So, Tina, who did you vote for?

You know who I voted for.

With enthusiasm?

Yes. Powered by utter contempt for what was happening on the other side. Not powered by wild enthusiasm so much as wild running away from the other man. Harry’s been in a rage with Romney for the last six months.

When did you and your husband become citizens?

After 9/11: 9/11 made me a New Yorker. I decided I cared so much about this country that I was kidding myself that I was ever going to go back to the U.K. It was time to get married.

But you’ll always be regarded as a Brit. And not just a Brit, but someone who was part of, or led, the British invasion of American journalism—Anna Wintour and so on. Graydon Carter isn’t technically British, he’s Canadian, but he has certainly given Vanity Fair an Anglophile sensibility—all those duchesses every month. I’m afraid Americans would include Rupert Murdoch, although he, of course, is Australian. What is it about British journalists thriving here? Is it just our Anglophilia?

I think British journalists do well in America because the newspaper culture there is so strong—telling stories and presenting them readably is in their DNA. British newspapers get a terrible rap, but they are brilliant in their presentation, most of them, so full of vitality and literary wit. Never has more talent been put to such meretricious ends.

What do you make of what’s going on over there politically? Prime Minister Cameron proposed an austerity plan, and, because of the parliamentary system, he could actually impose it. But that seems to have been a mistake. Meanwhile, here, Obama’s reelection is being taken as a firm rejection of austerity. Do you have a view on who’s right?

Austerity is for masochists, but there have been enough of them in the House to frustrate Obama’s modest attempts to promote growth. Maybe everyone will now see the light—I hope so. But maybe we’ll all cartwheel over the same austerity cliff.

As for the fiat you imagine David Cameron can promulgate, don’t underrate the effect on a British prime minister’s capacity to impose anything when he gets sliced and diced in Parliament at question time. A few lousy performances and he could lose the support of his backbenchers. A president doesn’t have to face anything like that, nor a press of such feral appetite.

When you took over Newsweek, after Sidney Harman bought it and brought you and Barry Diller in as partners, everyone I talked to had the same reaction: If anyone can pull this off, it will be Tina, but no one can pull this off. That turns out to have been correct.

I think it was a romantic gamble that there was still life to be had for Newsweek. We felt that for the Daily Beast—such a frisky digital brand—to have a print platform as well would be great. And, actually, that proved to be true. But every piece of the Zeitgeist was against Newsweek, combined with an unfixable infrastructure and a set of challenges that really would have required five years in an up economy to solve.

What was your vision for it?

I’ve always been very enamored of European newsmagazines—the Spiegel kind of magazine, which has an energetic, high-low approach to news. But those magazines also need a lot of pages—there’s something about the way a magazine looks and feels when it doesn’t have advertising that is unbelievably disappointing, both as an editor and as a writer. Pages are not meant to be adjacent to one another. They need the advertising to give it body and fullness. There was always that sense of Newsweek being not the full-bodied thing that it ought to be.

It seemed wan.

Yes, it always seemed wan, and that affects the way you read it. That was one of the big problems.

What were the others?

Well, let’s face it—when I look back on it, taking over Newsweek, it just seems completely insane, actually. Within the first few months, one of the partners dies—before we’d even really gotten the office straight. I came into a situation where pretty much every senior member of management had departed. That was one of the big differences between Newsweek and The New Yorker. When I took over The New Yorker, there was a very, very good, smart staff in place.

At The New Yorker, there were people you couldn’t get out the door.

That was a different challenge.

Yeah.

But at Newsweek we came in and there was no executive editor, no managing editor, no news editor, no Washington editor, no features editor. I mean there was, really, nobody. There were some fantastic people in copy and some young writers, but there was no management infrastructure. We had to kind of fling in the already overstressed Daily Beast staff, then had to try to merge these two cultures. Many on the Newsweek staff were taking buyouts, except they hadn’t yet taken them, so you didn’t know who was going and who was staying. And there was the Arab Spring—you know, the biggest news moment that we’ve seen in the last five years.


Related:

Advertising
Current Issue
Subscribe to New York
Subscribe

Give a Gift

Advertising